Following from our previous blog, we take an in-depth look at one of the most dynamic and charismatic areas of London: Soho. Soho is a place of many personalities and many cultures, but perhaps most of all it’s a place that feels European. In fact, more than anything, it feels Italian.
Italian and Greek people came here in the 19th century but something of the Italian atmosphere has remained in Soho. This is due in part to an admittedly small but vital number of stores and cafés. Without naming all of them, let’s look at three of the best.
First, and a personal favourite, is Camisa. This is an Italian food store and, some might say, the best in London. It’s in the heart of Soho itself on Old Compton Street. It’s easy to spot because it has an old-fashioned bicycle permanently parked outside.
Entering Camisa is like walking into a gastronomic Aladdin’s cave. The first thing that hits you is the sweet, rich smell of cheese, salami and fresh pasta, which Camisa makes on the premises. Stepping off the noisy street into Camisa is like walking into a world that used to exist 50 or 60 years ago. The aroma, the old wood surfaces and the dark alcoves actually make you feel as if you’re in Napoli.
Camisa sells everything you could hope to find to help you prepare beautiful, fresh Italian food at home. This includes all manner of antipasti such as olives, mushrooms and peppers, an array of cheeses hard to find elsewhere in England. It also stocks high quality dried pasta, oils, biscotti, anchovies and tuna. Best of all, though, are the fresh fennel and black pepper sausages which Camisa makes in store. Ask for them over the counter. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and speak about food with great passion and can give you all kinds of recommendations.
Along similar lines is the equally wonderful Lina Stores on Brewer Street. Without saying the same thing all over again, Lina Stores is an Italian food shop every bit as good as Camisa. It’s just round the corner, and it’s also open on Sundays. One major difference is that you can sit in and drink a glass of wine at Lina. They also have a restaurant in Soho, on Greek Street, which goes by the same name. This serves fresh pasta dishes and is truly divine, and not too pricey. Un vero pezzo d’Italia in London!
Next, in Frith Street, is the famed Bar Italia. There are plenty of tables outside, but the best seats are stools at the mirrored wall inside. While not cheap, this is the place to drink an authentic double espresso served at just the right temperature, and with a glass of water.
The sandwiches here are excellent, as are the cakes and fresh juices, especially carrot. For pasta, go to Lina Stores Restaurant or even Bocca Di Lupo, but the real joy of Bar Italia is the coffee and atmosphere. The bar is dark, low-key and, again, like stepping back in time. It retains a feeling of the 50s, of a different country and, for a minute, you can almost believe you are outside London. Sit back, order your espresso, and listen to the aging Soho bohemians talking about a time that no longer exists. And if you’re into films, Francis Ford Coppola, when in London, is also known to sit outside and sip a cup of the dark stuff.
So, these are three of the best Italian places to visit in Soho (and in London!). What’s left? There is Chinatown, just off Shaftsbury Avenue. To read more about that, see our blog here. In fact, Soho is a gastronomic centre, not only in terms of Italian food. There are Japanese, Vietnamese, Spanish and French restaurants in this diverse and densely populated neighbourhood.
Other places to visit include the nearby, independent bookshop Foyles. You can sit and enjoy the trees in Soho Square, visit where Karl Marx lived, listen to jazz at the famous Ronnie Scott’s, or watch classic and cult films at The Prince Charles Cinema.
Soho may be one of the most gay-friendly, diverse, open-minded, ethnically mixed, vibrant and curious places in London. True, it has a reputation, and you may think this exaggerated. But take a trip down there during the day, visit the food stores and shops and museums, then go back at night and experience some of the magic that somehow seems to infuse the area.
Soho has its seedy side, too, with the red-light clubs and massage parlours of old, but times are changing and more and more of these places seem like bad memories rather than its modern personality.
That’s not to say that such places don’t exist any more in Soho, they do, but all the time the place is becoming more diverse, more modern, and yet still retaining some of its curious, artistic quality that gave it its reputation of old.